Curving in, curving out
Bedtime theology of ethics with a 4 yo and 3 yo.
A story in two acts...
(During a sibling fight)
Me: No thank you, please don't do that. Jesus asks us to be kind and loving to others.
4 yo: I didn't hear him say that.
(During bedtime snuggles)
Me: (Talking about making good choices and Jesus asking us to be kind and loving)
3 yo: Mom, I'm gonna make good choices at Jesus' church and then at home I'm gonna make bad choices 'cause Jesus isn't there! (Looking proud of himself at this revelation)
One of my earliest memories is on Holy Saturday, the day just after Good Friday when Christians remember the death of Jesus and just before Easter Sunday when we proclaim Him risen. Holy Saturday is this in-between space, and the church has often kept vigil then.
Not me. I was no older than 5 (I know because we were living in my first childhood home and we moved when I was six) and that Holy Saturday I went upstairs and crammed myself into a small closet. Then, I said aloud some "naughty words" that I had heard an adult say off hand. Why? Because I knew that Jesus was dead and he wouldn't hear me. That day was my only chance.
My serious thoughts about Jesus, though literal, at an early age was developmentally appropriate and, as it turned out, prepared my for my own parenting and maybe a career in religious work. How could I expect my children to immediately grasp an omnipresent and omniscient being? And further more, how can I explain that this abstract being isn't simply about policing behaviors while we look for heavenly loopholes?
People often think of sin as a list of the bad things that we do. Confession in the traditional church has functioned this way. List what you did wrong, get some absolution and go and sin no more, except that you probably will on your way out of the confessional booth.
Martin Luther (and St Augustine before him) wrote of sin with the Latin phrase "incurvatus in se," or curved in on oneself. Put another way, a seminary professor told us it's hard to live for God when all you can see is the bridge of your nose. Theologically speaking, sin is more about the orientation to preserve self and ego, rather than a list of wrong doings.
If you define sin like this, it's a bit more sneaky. When are we curving in on ourselves? When are we looking out for the neighbor? Sometimes they're simultaneous. Sometimes one masquerades as another. A seminary friend once observed that he remembered to ask a friend about her illness/sick loved one (I can't remember) and upon the friend's delight that he had asked, my friend realized he was more proud of himself for remembering to ask than he was actually interested in hearing the answer.
It can be hard to teach kids to look beyond themselves. We played by a lake this weekend and I must have asked my 6 yo about 17 times to look before he skipped a rock too close to a playmate's head. But teaching empathy is the essential task of parenting, no matter what your faith or creed.
Parenting books and articles tell you to teach empathy early and often. Point out the characters in children's books. That boy is crying. How do you think he feels? Point it out in real life. Your brother is angry. See how he's stomping his feet. Label your own emotions and give some options for theirs. I'm really frustrated because I can't find my hat. I see you're crying, do you feel sad or mad? Those same books encourage acts of kindness and service. Bake the cookies for a sick friend. Pick up some trash. Do chores, more chores, harder chores, earlier and often.
Will this lead my children to an other-oriented life, away from a life curved upon their own wants and desires? I hope so, but we still have difficulty donating outgrown toys to other kids. It's a process. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes continuous re-orientation back to the generous God who invites us into the life-giving and life-long work of looking beyond the bridges of our noses. We're going to keep messing this up, but we're going to keep going.
My 4 yo was right: sometimes we don't hear Jesus tell us to be kind and loving to all neighbors. So we must keep saying this aloud and loudly to each other.
Note: Conversations occurred January 22, 2018 and July 12, 2019, respectively.